The Cerne Abbas Giant is a chalk figure of an enormous naked man wielding a club carved into the side of a hill in Dorchester, England. The giant is one of a number of presumably ancient hill figures that dot the English countryside, such as the Long Man of Wilmington and the White Horse of Uffington. But the Cerne Abbas giant is uniquely distinctive because of the enormous erect phallus that he sports.
The giant occupies a treasured place in British culture. He's widely believed to have been carved thousands of years ago. Folklore suggests he's an ancient fertility god, possessing the power to make childless women pregnant. Postcards of him are the only images of a naked man accepted by the British post office. But in recent years historians have suggested that the Giant may date only to the seventeenth-century, since the first written reference to it only dates to 1694. Furthermore, its creation may have been a prank.
The Giant on Trial
On May 23rd, 1996, a mock trial was held in the town of Cerne Abbas to settle once and for all the question of the giant's age. A jury listened to different arguments before voting for one of them.
The case for the giant's antiquity was presented first. Its proponents noted the antiquity of the hill-carving tradition and pointed out the pagan, pre-christian symbolism of the figure. This evidence, they argued, suggested the giant was many centuries old.
Next, the historian Ronald Hutton spoke in favor of a modern giant. He presented expert witnesses who pointed out that the first written reference to the giant only occurred in 1694. This was not because early descriptions of the Cerne Abbas landscape were scarce. Quite the opposite. Many pre-seventeenth-century surveys of that region have survived, but none of them mention a giant. By contrast, the presence of the Uffington Horse was noted as early as the eleventh century.
Joseph Betty then presented an even more specific case for a modern giant. He argued that a local landowner called Denzil Holles created the giant in the seventeenth century during the English Civil War. Holles harbored a passionate hatred of the puritan commander Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell's followers often represented their leader as a modern-day, club-wielding Hercules. Therefore, what better way for Holles to satirize the commander, Betty suggested, than to plaster a 180-foot rude caricature of Hercules on a hilltop in the middle of England? This would make the giant analogous to the rude signs and symbols that sports fans in modern times often paint on hillsides to mock opposing teams.
Betty noted that, given the dangerous political situation during the Civil War, Holles would have been careful not to make his authorship of the figure too obvious or too widely known.
When the jury cast its votes, 50% of them stuck with the traditional ancient-origin theory, and 35% of them sided with Hutton and Betty. 15% felt that the giant's age was unimportant.
The trial has not ended the debate over the giant's age. Scholars continue to argue over whether the giant is prehistoric art or an enormous seventeenth-century hill hoax.
Links and References
- Timothy Darvill, Katherine Barker, Barbara Bender, and Ronald Hutton. The Cerne Giant: An Antiquity on Trial. Oxbow Books. 1999.